A Successful Failure

By Richard Baker, U. S. Army Military History InstituteJuly 8, 2010

Trenton, 26 December 1776.
Trenton, 26 December 1776: The winter of 1776 was the bleakest of what had become a War for Independence, a time that indeed "tried men's souls." The victorious British had driven General George Washington and his army of Continentals and militia fro... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

On July 12, 1776, Admiral Richard, Lord Howe's fleet arrived at Long Island, New York, with one-hundred and fifty ships as well as reinforcements for the army of his brother, General Sir William Howe, commander of the British Army in America, already encamped on the island. General George Washington, Commander of the American Army, was concerned about a possible British invasion of New Jersey to isolate his forces in New York from the Middle Colonies. He ordered the Pennsylvania Militia encamped at Trenton, destined for the Flying Camp, to move forward to Amboy; "For having consulted with sundry Gentlemen I was informed, if the Enemy mean to direct their views towards Pennsylvania, or penetrate the Jerseys, their Route will be from near Amboy and either by way of Brunswick or Bound Brook." General Washington wanted forces in strength at the key location he deduced Amboy to be. The unit he chose to counter such a move would become unique among American military forces: the "Flying Camp."

A "Flying" unit or camp was an eighteenth century concept that today would be considered a mobile rapid reserve force. General George Washington's plans for confronting the British in 1776 included establishing such a force. In May 1776, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia agreed that a Flying Camp would be raised, consisting of ten thousand men: "From Pennsylvania 6,000, Maryland 3,400, lower Counties [Delaware] 600; total 10,000."

Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, appointed to command the Flying Camp, established his headquarters at Amboy, New Jersey. Charged with creating a capable fighting force, he would be vexed by a myriad of difficulties that impeded and prevented the Flying Camp from achieving its potential. The inability of the three main states to fill their quotas of troops forced Congress to "consider the propriety and means of augmenting the Flying-Camp." Eventually units from Virginia and Connecticut would be, at least temporarily, attached to the Flying Camp. Even with such support the Flying Camp would never have a complement of 10,000 Soldiers. General Washington would repeatedly call upon Mercer to send assigned units to the Army in New York as reinforcements. Militia units would leave, sometimes in mass, upon completion of unrealistically short periods of service. Desertion would be a continual problem as men left to return to idle farms or succumbed to boredom and fatigue and departed. The heart of the "Camp," its Soldiers, was always faint due to the losses of men from illness, disease, and injury. Flying Camp physician William Shippen reported in November 1776, "The number of sick and wounded...three hundred and thirty-eight; four-fifths...will soon join their ...companies. I have not yet taken charge of near two thousand that are scattered up and down the country in cold barns, and who suffer exceedingly for want of comfortable apartments...."

The difficulties of finding and keeping the Soldiers were compounded by logistical problems and supply shortages, political conflicts, and even the weather. The fall of Forts Washington and Lee along the Hudson River in November constituted the beginning of the American retreat across New Jersey. The end of the service commitment for the troops of the Flying Camp on December 1, 1776, depleted Washington's Army still further. From that point until the Battle of Trenton, General Mercer and the remnants of the former Flying Camp would be on the defensive and in retreat. General Washington's brilliant, yet admittedly desperate, assault upon Trenton in late December and the ensuing battle at Princeton would be the final act for the command. On Christmas Day, Hugh Mercer and some 400 remaining members of the Flying Camp accompanied General Washington in crossing the ice filled Delaware River. They were assigned to the force approaching Trenton from the north and contributed greatly to the successful assault. It would be at the Battle of Princeton, on January 3, 1777, that the curtain would finally fall upon the Flying Camp. There General Mercer was mortally wounded in the fighting and taken prisoner; he would succumb to his wounds two weeks later.

Congress did not reestablish the Flying Camp. Military defeats, the forced retreat, and the inability to raise and retain adequate troops made the concept unsupportable. The decision of Congress to establish a national army eclipsed the need and role for the unit. The Flying Camp served as a test of the Americans' ability to mobilize an effective military force, and contributed to the development of a stronger national army. Much military progress is the result of trial, error, and failure. The American Revolutionary War featured many failures over a period of nearly a decade until culminating in success. The Flying Camp was reasonably judged a failure at the time, yet still contributed to final victory.